No. 12 Duke will get a shot at its third win in a row Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. at Littlejohn Coliseum, but it will not come easily against No. 11 Clemson. Here are five key questions that could decide the top-15 matchup.
1. Will Marvin Bagley III play? And would his return to the floor actually be a good thing?
After missing the Blue Devils’ last two games with a mild right knee sprain suffered against North Carolina, Marvin Bagley III’s status for Sunday is once again up in the air.
But Duke hasn’t missed a beat without the transcendent forward, allowing just 52 points against Virginia Tech Wednesday in one of its most complete defensive efforts all season. In a slumber for much of the season, Grayson Allen has thrived without Bagley on the floor, dropping an average of 24.0 points per game. Allen has more space to work on offense without Bagley in the post.
"It’s more driving and kicking and stuff like that because when [Bagley's] in the game, you’re obviously going to give it to him, so a lot of that stuff goes away,” Allen after Duke beat Georgia Tech.
Without Bagley, the Blue Devils’ offense hasn’t fallen off much, and their defense has stepped up. So if Bagley misses Sunday’s game, it won’t be devastating—it could just mean a different sort of look on offense, not a dip in performance, for Duke. And if the Blue Devils’ new matchup zone defense works like it did against the Hokies, it might not matter.
2. Can Clemson win without Shelton Mitchell?
Clemson will almost certainly be without one of its top weapons, Shelton Mitchell, on Sunday. The junior guard and the Tigers’ third-leading active scorer took an elbow to the head Wednesday night against Florida State and had to be taken to the hospital.
After forward Donte Grantham tore his ACL in January, the Tigers have come to lean on other contributors more, including Mitchell. With Mitchell out, Clemson will have to dig deep into its bench and may start little-used freshman guard Clyde Trapp.
The Tigers will need Trapp to grow up fast if they want to take down the Blue Devils. He has become a key bench piece in recent games, but has not started a game at the college level yet. Although he has shot well from deep in extremely limited opportunities, he has not been tested playing for long stretches.
3. Can Duke handle playing on the road?
It’s painfully obvious: Duke is not a good road team.
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Its only impressive true road win was at then-No. 25 Miami more than a month ago, and it has tanked in bad losses to St. John’s, Boston College and N.C. State.
Littlejohn Coliseum isn’t known as the hardest venue to play at in the ACC, but Tiger fans will bring it Sunday. The Blue Devils will have to show a marked change in sustained energy—they haven’t played many complete road games. Even in the win against the Hurricanes, they had to rally late after sustaining a minor implosion in the early stages of the second half.
Allen will have to step up and bring his trademark fire if Duke wants to avoid lapses that have led to big runs for its opponents on the road. At home, he has rallied his team by pumping players up after big plays, but not as much on the road. The Blue Devils will need a screaming, fiery Allen Sunday if they want to come back to Durham with a win.
4. Can Duke score inside against the Tigers?
Clemson has been vulnerable from beyond the arc, but has been incredibly stout inside it. The Tigers rank in the top 30 in the nation in 2-point percentage allowed, right in the range of North Carolina. With a similar profile on defense, the Tar Heels shut down Bagley in the post and forced Duke’s offense outside.
If Wendell Carter Jr., Marques Bolden and Bagley, if healthy, cannot penetrate inside to score consistently, it could make Duke one-dimensional on offense—not a recipe for success, especially against the Tigers, who rank No. 11 in the country in defensive efficiency according to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.
Like North Carolina, Clemson doesn’t have extraordinary size. But with forwards Elijah Thomas and Mark Donnal both standing at 6-foot-9, it has enough to challenge the Blue Devils in the post. Whether or not Duke can score inside will likely be the difference in the game.
5. Can Trevon Duval get it together?
Duval has been baffling this season.
After he dropped 17 points and dished out 10 assists against Michigan State in November, it seemed like he was going to be the pure point guard that the Blue Devils had lacked in recent years. But he has struggled in conference play, getting benched for the first time all season against Georgia Tech before returning to the lineup Wednesday night.
Duval has not shot well this season, but he keeps taking a high volume of shots, even from deep. Duke will need a more conservative, but still dynamic version of Duval against the Tigers. Duval has four turnovers in each of his last three starts. If he turns the ball over that much again, it’s hard to see the Blue Devils coming out on top.